Vibrant Voices of Public Address–Volume 1, No. 4

April 2012

A Conversation with Paul Stob

In this issue, Public Address Division member Paul Stob discusses his study of a speech given by the American philosopher and psychologist William James at the unveiling of the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial in Boston on 31 May 1897. The speech can be found in numerous locations, but the commemorative volume of the unveiling ceremony reprints not only James’s speech but also briefer remarks by other speakers. The commemorative volume is available in full and for free on Google Books: The Monument to Robert Gould Shaw: Its Inception, Completion and Unveiling, 1865–1897 (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1897). The Shaw Memorial, designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, stands atop Beacon Hill in Boston. A photograph of the memorial can be found here. Colonel Shaw was the white commander of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, a unit of troops of African descent recruited from the Northeast, the Midwest, and Canada. On 18 July 1863, the Massachusetts 54th led the Union Army’s charge on Fort Wagner in South Carolina. Colonel Shaw and more than two dozen of his men were killed in the assault. Badly wounded but able to survive was Garth Wilkinson James, another white officer in the 54th and the youngest brother of William James.

What do you find especially compelling about this artifact?

James’s speech is compelling because it challenged many of the norms of commemorative oratory. Commemorative speakers are typically called to celebrate, remember, or condemn according to the expectations of their audiences, deploying familiar and predictable topoi in an emotionally charged situation. At the unveiling of the Shaw Memorial, speaking according to the expectations of the audience would have meant addressing the Civil War, the heroic actions of the Massachusetts 54th, and Shaw’s leadership. And for the first half of his speech, James did indeed articulate these themes.

But in the second half of the speech, James proceeded to upend familiar commemorative topoi. Immediately after discussing the Shaw Memorial in terms of brotherhood, heroism, and unity—which were the values that the audience looking at the relief sculpture most likely expected to hear invoked—James called these terms into question. The true meaning of the memorial, he insisted, was the “lonely courage” that Shaw displayed when he agreed to “head your dubious fortunes, [N]egroes of the 54th.” James then elaborated: “That lonely kind of valor (civic courage as we call it in peace times) is the kind of valor to which the monuments of nations should most of all be reared, for the survival of the fittest has not bred it into the bone of human beings as it has bred military valor” (85).

James’s turn to “lonely courage” isolated Shaw from his regiment and from the surviving soldiers standing in the audience. It was a risky rhetorical choice to say the least, disrupting the emotional connection between the people of Boston, the actions of the 54th, the veterans of the war, and the general feeling of collective sacrifice for the common good. Yet the turn to lonely courage allowed James to pinpoint the kind of virtue that was available to the people of Boston in 1897. In response to the upheavals of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, Bostonians could assert themselves as individuals and adopt the same kind of courage that had animated Shaw. Thus by questioning the audience’s perception of what was significant in the past, James was able to underscore their duty in the present and future.

In the end, the speech was a success because James used his ethos as America’s leading psychologist to challenge commonplaces regarding the Civil War, Robert Gould Shaw, and the Massachusetts 54th. At the same time, he positioned his listeners as participants in the memorial’s meaning. White or black, old or young, male or female, veteran or civilian—everyone listening to James was treated as an individual who could act as virtuously at the end of the nineteenth century as Shaw had acted during the war. The people of Boston became the Robert Gould Shaws of 1897 and beyond.

What do you believe are the most important contexts for understanding the rhetorical functions of this artifact?

There are three contexts useful for understanding the artifact. The first is the long-standing tradition of war remembrance. Because of this tradition, which stretched back to ancient times, the people of Boston expected James to talk about brotherhood, sacrifice, military valor, and the like. The second context is the “memorial mania” that swept across the United States in the decades after the Civil War. James spoke at a time when the American people felt a profound desire to remember those who had taken up arms and committed themselves to a larger cause, be it a Northern or a Southern cause. As a result, James’s decision to challenge commemorative commonplaces was risky, distinctive, and unexpected.

Yet James’s decision was also fitting given his place in public culture—which is the third context for understanding the artifact. William James was Boston’s intellectual leader, quickly on his way to becoming America’s preeminent public intellectual. He was, at the same time, the nation’s leading psychologist. Because he was an expert on the human mind, his ethos was that of someone who could muck around in the thoughts, memories, and perceptions of the audience. At the Shaw ceremony, James used this ethos to question the audience’s understanding of the past and to redirect their memories according to the science of psychology.

How would you characterize your critical approach to this artifact? Why have you chosen this approach?

My approach to this artifact is a close reading of the speech relative to the contexts mentioned above. Such an approach allows me to isolate the turn—or what in a forthcoming essay I refer to as James’s commemorative confrontation—that takes place in the second half of the speech. It also helps to explain the audience’s response to the speech. Those in the crowd knew that James was being unconventional, yet they also knew that the speech was a brilliant success. As a writer for the Boston Journal explained on 2 June 1897, “Seldom is Boston favored with an oration so fitting to the time and hour and yet so unconventional as that delivered by Prof. William James in Music Hall on Monday.” Wondering how the oration could have been perceived as “unconventional” yet “fitting” is what first led me to explore the speech.

How would you incorporate this artifact into a class?

James’s Shaw oration provides a compelling case study of intellectual culture, public memory, and memorialization. Because the speech deals with a memorial, it provides students with the opportunity to reflect on the visual, artistic, and architectural dimensions of public memory. At the same time, James’s words allow students to reflect on how texts can interact with material artifacts.

Furthermore, because the speech dealt with the Massachusetts 54th and memories of the Civil War, the issue of race pervaded the occasion and James’s performance. It should be noted that while James was the principal orator at the unveiling ceremony, he shared the stage with Booker T. Washington. Washington’s speech, which is available alongside James’s speech in the commemorative volume of the ceremony, is eloquent and compelling in its own right, although somewhat more conventional.

Taken together, James’s and Washington’s speeches allow for an intriguing discussion of public memory, race, visual culture, and commemorative oratory.

Where can interested readers find additional information?

A more detailed discussion of James’s oration and its numerous contexts can be found in Paul Stob, “Lonely Courage, Commemorative Confrontation, and Communal Therapy: William James Remembers the Massachusetts 54th,” Quarterly Journal of Speech, forthcoming in 2012. An excellent analysis of the Civil War and memorial culture in the nineteenth century, which includes a discussion of the Shaw Memorial, is Kirk Savage, Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997). Finally, a good overview of James’s place in public culture is George Cotkin, William James, Public Philosopher (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994).

Contributor: Paul Stob is Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Vanderbilt University. His research focuses on the intersection of rhetoric and intellectual culture, particularly in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. His work on William James, John Dewey, and Kenneth Burke, among others, has appeared in Argumentation and Advocacy, Philosophy and Rhetoric, the Quarterly Journal of Speech, and Rhetoric and Public Affairs. His forthcoming book, William James and the Art of Popular Statement, will be published by Michigan State University Press in Fall 2012.

Editor: Angela G. Ray, Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Northwestern University, is chair of NCA’s Public Address Division for 2012.

Vibrant Voices, Vol. 1, No. 4